Janika Oras & Liina Saarlo (Estonian Literary Museum):

From folklore to narodnoye tvorchestvo: performing runo-song on stage

In 1940, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, losing independence that was established in 1918. The new regime introduced new ideology and organization of cultural life that were strictly controlled by central institutions in Moscow. Folklore had a special status in Soviet culture and the elaborated models of using folklore, common to whole Soviet territory, had to be adopted in Estonia.

In our paper we try to shed light on developments in the performance practices of older traditional songs on official stages in Stalinist period. Our research is focused on the parallel developments and differences in heritagization-processes of traditional singing in Estonia and Setomaa, the border area of Estonia and Russia, compared to the other Finnic peoples in the Soviet Union, especially in Karelia. We focus on the uses of unarranged repertoire representing the historical style of singing in the wider context of singing practices. We consider performance practices of runo-song in the local communities and in larger, nationwide and union-wide arenas. We also point out the basis of the idea of “folk genius” in the concept of “folk creations” (народное творчество) – illiterate singers of folk eposes, the Soviet singers of tales, e.g. in Central Asia, exemplified by the authorities of Soviet Estonian culture.

Performances of (unarranged) traditional songs on stage were nothing unprecedented in Estonian music-arenas before the Soviet time. The most obvious change of the traditional singing on the Soviet scene was the shift of ideology: the old singing tradition, runo-song, transformed from national heritage to folk creations (народное творчество). The folk of the folklore in Soviet discourse was not an ethnic category but social.

We analyse the meaning of performance of traditional songs on different social levels: functioning as an expression of state and group ideologies, but also as a tool for developing someone’s individual identity. In the framework of the Soviet colonialism discourse, we discuss the interpretation of the performances of the traditional songs by performers and audience as collaboration with Soviet regime, or as some kind of national resistance or de-colonization strategy.

We also examine the erstwhile notions about the style and aesthetics of the performances. The plurality of notions reflect uncertainty of how the local tradition had to be performed to match the Soviet standards and local (historical) context as well.